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Obama's Legacy

November 28, 2018.


Prospective Legacy Management


Vanity steered Obama's presidency into a quest for a shining legacy. He was tutored on the subject by nine eminent presidential historians, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, whom he invited to the white house barely six months into his first term. The White House inner-circle aimed to predefine Obama's legacy in terms of his inspiring rhetoric and lofty goals; and the Nobel Committee complied by awarding him the Peace Prize ten months after inauguration.


The trick to legacy-management is to camouflage the failures and exaggerate the value of successes. It's a way to write popular history in advance of scrutiny by academic historians, in the hope that the popular version will stick. (And flattering those historians with invitations to the white house can't hurt). After all, Lincoln is remembered for preserving the union, not for his incompetent management of a war that cost 750,000 lives. Likewise, Obama hopes to be remembered for the climate-deal with China in 2014, not his bombing campaign that turned Libya into a failed state.


So by now, Axelrod & Company have cherry-picked their way to a grandiloquent portrait of Obama's accomplishments. Unfortunately, the fully enumerated legacy is a story of how the subordination of policy to politics resulted in mediocrity and failure.


As I evaluate Obama's legacy in subsequent posts, I will try to distinguish objective outcomes from good intentions, and the politically possible from pie in the sky.


Legacy #0: Nobel Peace Prize (#0 = Pretend it didn't happen)


I will never mention the infamous Nobel Peace Prize again. It's too embarrassing for everyone concerned. Even the President, to his great credit, never mentions it. In fact, when the White House learned of the award, they inquired about the possibility of not showing up to accept it. Recently, a former director of the Nobel Institute admitted that awarding the prize for nothing more than good intentions was a mistake.


After all, with only 10 months in office, Obama's qualifications for the prize amounted to just two. First was his trail of foreign policy rhetoric which boils down to three imperatives: make love (and diplomacy) not war; eliminate nuclear weapons; and avoid "dumb wars." This channeling of John and Yoko was bound to appeal to the middle-aged political appointees of the Nobel Committee.


The second was the clincher: Europeans' joy at the ouster of the despised American leader who prosecuted the "dumb war" in Iraq. In short, a Norwegian committee of political appointees bestowed the Peace Prize upon the Black Han Solo who vanquished Darth Vader-Bush.


Subsequent posts about Obama's foreign policy record should leave no doubt that the Nobel Committee made a horrible mistake in 2009.

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Since later posts are all negative, I begin here by giving Obama well deserved credit for pursuing a visionary project.


Legacy #1. The Transpacific Trade Partnership. Et tu, Hillary?


TTP was an essential element in Barak Obama's strategic pivot to the Pacific region. This example of monumental statecraft was sabotaged by reactionary progressives of his own party - Pocahontas and Bernie Sanders - with the final back-stabbing delivered by Hillary who, in her lust for the white house, sided with Trump's opposition to TPP.


Obama nurtured the TTP not so much for the economic benefits, but primarily for strategic geopolitical reasons, i.e., to restrain China. Eventually the region's bully would want to join up; which means it would have to abide by TTP rules that outlaw state subsidies and protect intellectual property. Also, since US tariffs are already low, TPP's requirements for tariff reduction only applied to other members. Even though these provisions address the legitimate complaints against China, Trump chose to scrap TTP in favor of tariffs.


Ironically, Trump's revision of NAFTA relied on TPP as a model. Since TTP provisions had already been accepted by Canada, Mexico and the US, using them as a basis for NAFTA 2.0 allowed negotiations to wrap-up on time.

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